With medical marijuana a done deal, Mississippi legislators have turned their attention to addressing the other half of the problem created by a state Supreme Court decision that blocked the route citizens have used to directly enact laws.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved by nearly 4-to-1 a proposal to restore the initiative process in such a way that it cures the defect cited by the Supreme Court and reduces the possibility of havoc if an ill-advised initiative gets through.
With one exception, the House proposal looks like a solid approach.
What’s good about the plan:
- It would stop the Legislature from having to worry about making changes to the process every time the state gains or loses a congressional seat. The previous initiative process was thrown out due to lawmakers’ failure to update the law and its petition-gathering requirements after Mississippi dropped from five congressional districts to four following the 2000 census. The House proposal says that no matter how many districts the state has, an evenly proportional number of signatures would have to be collected from each one.
- It would allow citizens to propose only new general laws, not constitutional amendments. The former initiative process was just the opposite. As a result, it forced petitioners to try to put into the state constitution issues and regulations that are better treated in general law. Medical marijuana was a perfect example. Had it been legalized as a constitutional amendment, and if during implementation of the law unforeseen problems surfaced, there would have been no easy way to fix them. It would have required coming back to the voters to amend the constitution again.
- It would do away with the option for lawmakers to put an alternative proposal on the same ballot with the initiative. Such alternatives were usually used by the Legislature not to improve what was being offered but rather to defeat it by confusing voters and splitting their vote between two options.
What still needs work:
- Although the House proposal says lawmakers could not tinker with what the voters passed for at least two years, there is a loophole. It would allow lawmakers to act sooner than that if they deem the new law to be detrimental to the “public peace, health, safety or financial solvency of the state.”
Those criteria could be fairly subjective, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which lawmakers might invoke that exception to gut or kill a law they don’t like.
There needs to be a way for the Legislature to quickly fix objectively bad legislation adopted by popular referendum, but there also needs to be a mechanism in place to stop lawmakers from using this authority as a pretense to thwart the voters’ will.
One House member, Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, offered an amendment that would give voters the right to ask the Supreme Court to block any change to the initiative in the first two years.
Although Johnson’s amendment did not receive the votes it needed to be adopted, it did appear to get a sympathetic ear from the committee chairman who shepherded the overall proposal through the House.
As this process moves forward and includes the input of the Senate, Johnson’s idea or something like it needs to be added.